Friday, April 29, 2016

"The Man Who Knew Infinity": The Folly of the Biopic

Now in Theaters
In doing research to prepare for The Man Who Knew Infinity, I have read many comparisons of the film to 2014’s The Theory of Everything, and critiques of this film about a mathematician often fell along the same lines as what critics said about the Steven Hawking biopic: little emphasis on the actual mathematical breakthroughs at play, a protagonist who exists primarily for the character arcs of other characters, and a plodding screenplay held together by decent performances, yet many found that forgivable for the sake of having a feel-good “true story” to pass the time.  Given my verbosely strong feelings against The Theory of Everything, you would think that I would fall in line with that train of thought, but I actually find myself noticing more similarities with a different 2014 biopic: American Sniper, of all things.

The points of comparison to The Theory of Everything are fairly obvious once one takes the societal impediment of Steven Hawking’s disability and replaces it with the racism of early twentieth century England.  The Man Who Knew Infinity stars Dev Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught Indian mathematician who travelled to Cambridge to seek publication under the tutelage of Professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons).  Much like in the Hawking film, the focus is not so much on the mathematical achievements of the key figures as it is about those figures having to deal with the pressures of their circumstances, and the cartoonishly blunt racism of the Cambridge students and faculty is apparently supposed to be the thematic glue that holds the film together.  Patel and Irons do their best to play their socially solemn characters and play off one another as only people who love numbers more than companionship can, but the film itself acknowledges that neither excel at friendships, so their arcs fall flat as a consequence.

This is where the comparison to American Sniper starts to rear its ugly head.  Much like in that film, here there is seemingly no purpose in telling the story of the central character.  Ramanujan’s character arc seems to revolve around learning humility in accepting that his breakthroughs require proofs, yet at the same time it is about the white faculty of Cambridge continually insisting how worthless he is until Hardy swoops in as his white savior to get him the recognition he deserves, so those two arcs butt heads in a way that neither feels satisfying.  Then, at the halfway point, the movie transforms into a tragedy about Ramanujan struggling with a terminal tuberculosis diagnosis, shuffling his primary struggle to the background as this new, alien conflict takes center stage.  The accuracy of these events is a moot point if we don’t see a gratifying transformation in our lead character, an emotional journey that we can relate to as an audience.  This just feels like a checklist of moments listed on Ramanujan’s Wikipedia page, dramatized in the vague semblance of a feel-good plot that lacks a central narrative arc.

I’ll say the same thing here that I did about American Sniper: if the filmmakers wanted to make this story into a film, they should have made a documentary.  Patel and Irons are good actors who aren’t given much room to breathe in their un-nuanced roles, and without strong central character arcs, a biopic has nothing to stand on besides fidelity to the real events it portrays.  And if that’s all you have going for your story, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and present your research in a format that better serves your narrative.  Otherwise you’re doomed to wallow in biopic mediocrity, which is exactly what has happened to the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan.  I hope some documentarian does justice to his story; I would much rather see that.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"Sing Street": Heartfelt Coming of Age Through Music

Now in Theaters
Back when I first started writing reviews in 2014, an early entry I came across was John Carney’s Begin Again, a film that I was left mostly underwhelmed by due to its skeletal plot that existed purely for the exhibition of some pretty damn good original music.  Writer-director Carney is back again with Sing Street, and it seems as though he has taken the lessons of his previous film to heart, because this movie not only feels like a fresh start for the director, but he delves into some deeply personal territory to tell a touching and memorable musical drama that should bring him some much deserved acclaim from critics and audiences alike.

Set in 1985 Dublin, Carney tells a semi-autobiographical tale through his fourteen year old protagonist, Conor.  Conor lives with his constantly fighting parents and has only his older college-dropout brother to look to for guidance and companionship.  In order to save money, Conor’s parents pull him out of his school in order to attend a less prestigious Catholic academy, where he is the target of bullying from both a fellow student and a headmaster who is not so subtly implied to be a child molester.  One day, though, he sees a girl across the street, whom he develops an instant infatuation for.  He tells her that he has a band and that he wants her to model for him in a music video.  She agrees, but there’s just one problem: Conor doesn’t have a band yet.

In short order he manages to assemble some of the school’s misfits into the semblance of a musical group, and they start out undeniably rough, mimicking the artists that influence them without much of a sound to call their own.  However, as time goes on and the boys practice with one another, the music starts to take shape, first as tributes to their inspirations but eventually as a sound of their very own, which by the way is some of the best original music I’ve heard in a film for a while now.  Carney has a unique gift for conveying the fun and energy of writing music, and watching Conor and his band develop over the course of the film is engaging on a musical level and, more importantly, as a demostration of Conor's coming of age.

And it works so well as a coming of age story that it’s pretty forgivable that no character is well developed as Conor or his love interest, Raphina.  Due to the autobiographical nature of the story, Conor’s perspective is limited, yet the movie doesn’t enter the too-easy pitfall of making Raphina a one-dimensional object to lust after.  She’s enigmatic at first, yet eventually reveals enough personal motivation and insecurity to stand on equal footing with the film’s lead, and the chemistry the two share feels like a genuine expression of young love.  It’s rooted in an awkward sense of humor that the film exudes throughout, a sense that these kids could have been people we grew up with and that their slightly uncomfortable mannerisms and speech patterns aren’t too far off from how we were at their age.

All in all, Sing Street is a pretty damn entertaining film.  With some fantastic lead performances, a cheeky sense of humor, and some incredibly catchy music, John Cagney has established that he can do more than assemble a series of music videos into a feature length amalgamation, ironically enough by making a movie about kids making a series of music videos.  This is definitely one to seek out in a theater wherever you can find it, and then buy the soundtrack to keep the memory of the experience alive.  Which reminds me, I have an iTunes purchase to make….

Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Green Room": A Darkly Human Ordeal

Now in Select Theaters, Wide Release on April 29, 2016

Longtime readers may remember a movie called Blue Ruin that would go on to appear on my “Best of 2014” list.  Ever since seeing that quiet masterpiece I have been excitedly curious about what writer-director Jeremy Saulnier would do next, and here we are two years later with Green Room.  So does this new installment into Saulnier’s filmography stack up to the heights of his previous film?  Well, not quite, but it’s a damn close call.

A down-on-their-luck punk band known as The Ain’t Rights is far from home without enough money to pay for gas to get there when a miracle gig seems to open up at a bar whose main attendees appear to be neo-Nazis.  The band plays their gig and are about to leave when they discover a dead body in the green room.  The management of the bar refuse to let them leave the green room, until eventually they try to break in.  The Ain’t Rights must survive the night with no weapons on hand and no help coming.

What really struck me about this film is how Saulnier makes the conscious choice to depict his Nazi villains as empathetic people rather than cartoonishly evil monsters.  Oh, they’re definitely evil and guilty of committing horrible crimes in the name of white supremacy and the preservation of their community, but every one of these characters feel like distinct people, from the fight-dog handler who has a genuine love for his pets, to a lieutenant who nervously has doubts about his role in this massacre, to the soft-spoken calculation of the bar’s owner (Patrick Stewart, who is partially cast for shock value, yet knocks the performance out of the park).  Ironically, this makes The Ain’t Rights comparatively less interesting.  They volley the occasional humorous quips and smart introspective dialogue, but they ultimately serve as audience surrogates for the pain and horror of the situation.  This isn’t huge issue, but it does make the violence against them ultimately less interesting than the villains perpetrating said violence.

And, oh boy, the violence.  This isn’t a gore-fest by any means, but the film is not afraid to show the consequences of violent actions, and it earns its moments of bloodshed with a tense patience that films with similar concepts can’t muster.  If anything, whether for practical or budgetary reasons, the film sometimes shies away from the violence in a way that prevents a clear glimpse at the injuries, which tends to feel like a tease that doesn’t quite deliver fully.  However, these are only a couple instances in a film bountiful with harrowing encounters and cathartic kills.

I may nitpick a bit, but I really did enjoy Green Room.  Though definitely not for those with weak stomachs, it’s a worthy addition to Jeremy Saulnier’s filmography.  Dark, violent, surprisingly funny at moments, and uniquely insightful, this is a movie that shouldn’t be lost to the bowels of indie cinema obscurity.  Go see it wherever you can find a theater playing it.  You won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Keanu": A Big-Screen Disappointment

In Theaters on April 29, 2016

Confession time: I have seen a grand total of one Key and Peele sketch.  I enjoyed it, realize that their brand of comedy is likely something I would enjoy, but I just have never gotten around to watching the show.  I was, however, excited to see their big screen debut, Keanu, mostly because the premise has some real comedic potential.  Here’s the problem, though: Keanu just isn’t a very good movie.  I wanted to laugh, and I saw how the situations could have been funny, but even taking away my cynical critical lens, the audience around me wasn’t laughing either, which is an obvious problem for a comedy.

Rell (Jordan Peele), a down-on-his-luck stoner, one day finds an adorable kitten on his doorstep that he adopts and names Keanu.  When his place is robbed after being mistaken for his next-door neighbor/pot dealer, Rell embarks on a journey to recover his cat from a local gang.  Joining him is his awkwardly uptight suburban cousin, Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key), and the two must impersonate infamous killers in order to keep themselves alive and deal for Keanu’s return.

Where I see a lot of potential for comedy is in Key and Peele’s ability as character actors, as well as the chemistry they clearly have from years of working together.  Peele plays with his character being not nearly as tough as he thinks he is in a way that mocks Black masculine culture pointedly, and Key is such a blatant antithesis to badassery that it’s genuinely endearing when he is the one accepted into the fold of the kitten’s captors.  The comedians play off each other so naturally that it really is no surprise to me that their show ran for five seasons.

But in transitioning to the big screen, Key and Peele have hit the same roadblock that many sketch comics face, and that is that they aren’t able to support the extended scenes inherent to the cinematic experience.  There were a few instances where the film felt inspired and chuckle-worthy, but there were many more times where I thought a joke would have benefited from snappier editing or a quicker cut to the next scene.  This is most apparent when Key and Peele don’t occupy a scene together, as they only have inferiorly comic actors to bounce off of instead of each other.  The film tries to solve these divisions by intercutting between their concurrent scenes, but this causes both scenes to feel too long and played out without ever hitting hard on their punchlines.

I saw this movie on 4/20, so you know that half the theater was probably stoned; even then the most I heard were some weak snickers.  The premise of this movie is fantastic, and the raw energy and chemistry of Key and Peele make them appealing enough where I’m not dissuaded from checking out their sketch show to see what the fuss is about.  But Keanu just isn’t a very funny movie, and that’s the biggest problem a comedy can have.  It’s not an easily quantifiable thing to analyze; comedy just either works or it doesn’t.  Here, it unfortunately doesn’t.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"The Lady in the Van": Narcissism Overshadows a Star

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I really do enjoy Dame Maggie Smith as an actress.  Since I first saw her as Professor MacGonagall in the Harry Potter films, I’ve immensely enjoyed her embittered old woman shtick, particularly during the six year run of Downton Abbey.  So I was understandably intrigued by The Lady in the Van, a film billed as a Maggie Smith vehicle, potentially her last as she seemingly edges toward retirement.  Unfortunately, I have to deliver the news that The Lady in the Van is not all that great a film to possibly end Dame Smith’s career on, perhaps because her talent isn’t allowed to star in it.

Ostensibly based on true events, the film follows Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) and his relationship with an old homeless woman who drives around parking her van on his street.  Her name is Mary Shepherd (Dame Smith), and her general cantankerous nature and disheveled appearance does not ingratiate her with the local middle-upper class residents of the neighborhood.  When the police finally place a notice on her van to move, and she has nowhere else to go, Alan invites Mary to park her van in his driveway until she can get her affairs in order.  She continues to stay for the next fifteen years, mostly due to Alan’s ambivalence to her comings and goings.

Dame Smith is, as per usual, a fun presence on screen, exaggeratedly curmudgeon-y and incredibly heartfelt when the moment calls for it.  That’s why it’s a pity that the screenwriter, the autobiographical Alan Bennett, chooses to focus on himself rather than on his title character.  He’s an author by trade and he takes every opportunity to tell you so, using alliterative turns of phrase in forced voiceovers that only ever expound on his boring, uninteresting feelings.  He acts as a constant reminder of the film’s themes, drawing parallels between Mary and his own mother whom he must care for, and drawing distinctions between the fiction of the film and the reality of actual events.  It’s an artistic choice that is meant to come across as endearing but is instead tedious and redundant, hammering home concepts that could readily speak for themselves.

But perhaps most baffling is the insistence on Alan being portrayed as two characters by the same actor: “the one who lives” and “the one who writes.”  The two are both portrayed by Alex Jennings, who isn’t necessarily a bad actor, but the character’s lack of charisma does not make his masturbatory conversations at all entertaining to observe.  No other character ever sees Writer Alan, so these exchanges between the divergent aspects of Alan’s personality only serve as a pretentious way to portray his authorial inner monologue and highlight his character growth, though his character isn’t the interesting one.  Revelations about Mary’s past are practically an afterthought, a minor mystery that should have been an investigative focus of an actually interesting person’s life.

The result is a film that feels like a poor imitation of the works of Charlie Kaufman: a high concept gimmick that doesn’t have any high concepts to support it.  Alan Bennett’s telling of Mary Shepherd’s life is ultimately narcissistic to the point where it likely doesn’t do justice to the real woman, and it certainly does not do justice to Dame Maggie Smith’s performance.  I don’t blame Dame Smith for the film’s shortcomings, but I do hope that this is not the last role we see her in, for that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"The Forest (2016)": Tasteless Exploitation of Tragedy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Just on a basic conceptual level, The Forest was going to be a problematic film for its use of a clichéd white woman stock horror protagonist in a foreign setting based upon a real-world epidemic.  The titular forest is Aokigahara, a destination in Japan for the suicidal to kill themselves anonymously and presumably without shame to their families.  This is still a major problem in Japan, so the choice to use the location as the setting for a horror film is particularly tasteless, never mind the blatant appropriation of Japanese culture in order to titillate American shock-horror sensibilities.  But even assuming that the problematic aspects of the premise didn’t already work against the film’s success, The Forest is dead on arrival anyway as a shoddy piece of film-making.

Natalie Dormer (of Game of Thrones fame) plays Sara, a woman in search of her lost twin sister who was last seen entering Aokigahara.  Sara travels to Japan and starts to investigate when she meets Aiden, a reporter who claims to be able to help guide her through the forest.  Despite warnings that the forest causes hallucinations and that ghostly apparitions reside there, Sara sets out to find her sister anyway.

What could have made this film at least a bit more tolerable would have been more of an emphasis on the uniquely Japanese aspects of the terrain.  References to Japanese mythology and the role that ghosts play in Japanese popular culture would have been welcome to at least justify the presence of an American outsider character in this remote location.  However, the forest functions much as any other forest in any other horror film, haunted by creatures that aren’t even mildly shocking or scary to behold.  This is exactly the kind of horror film on autopilot that was responsible for the collapse in quality the horror genre sustained in the early 2000s, and here we are again, revisiting the same pool of tropes.

But the worst aspect of this film is Dormer’s portrayal of Sara, or rather her lack of any.  Sara is an immediately unlikeable character, from her unwillingness to try to communicate with locals in anything but English to her constantly angry and bitter attitude.  Unlikeable characters can still be interesting with an appropriate amount of depth or reason for their unsavoriness, but Dormer’s Sara has none, which is likely much more the director's and screenwriter’s faults than Dormer’s.  As the film portrays Sara, she’s a dull entitled American stumbling through Japan as if searching for her lost sister is an inconvenience rather than a matter of life and death, and we’re supposed to relate to that.  Even audience members who actually behave in real life as Sara does in the film couldn’t have the self-awareness to think of her as a relatable human being.

So yes, The Forest is confirmed horrible as its premise seemed to dictate.  It isn’t surprising that those involved in the production of such an obviously tone-deaf story would not have the talent to even make the film moderately entertaining.  It’s a slow slog of a film that seems to pretend at being a character study for a character that barely qualifies as one-dimensional, and the horror elements are token and lazy.  But the greatest sin of all is still the exploitation of a real-world suicide epidemic as the basis for a ghost story.  How tasteless.  

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Captain America: Civil War": We've Reached Glorious Peak Marvel

In Theaters on May 6, 2016
Wow, guys.  Just… wow.  Normally, I try to come up with a clever opening paragraph that ties a film into a larger cultural narrative or a context that gives you some perspective on why I liked or didn’t like a film.  But if you’ve read my previous reviews, you know I unapologetically love Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, not out of any fanboy loyalty but because they are well-made films that consistently build upon one another to achieve with continuity-driven storytelling that no other franchise has realized in the history of cinema.  There have been hiccups in the grand experiment, but overall the films are pretty great.  You already know this.  But here’s what I have to tell you: Captain America: Civil War is the culmination of years of narrative and character development into what is easily the best film Marvel has made yet.

The film juggles characters and their respective arcs like no other film I can think of offhand, in a manner that puts Age of Ultron to shame.  The story is simultaneously about the redemption of Bucky Barnes, the relationship between Vision and Scarlet Witch, newcomer T’Challa/Black Panther’s quest to avenge a fallen loved one, and, of course, the ideological conflict between Captain America and Iron Man over whether their powers should be subject to government oversight.  It’s astounding that the film manages to take an immense cast of roughly a dozen characters and give them each something entertaining to do, all while telling an engaging story that makes the long 150 minute runtime breeze by like nothing.

This is in large part because the film takes its time with its vital character moments, providing pathos for not only the conflicts between individual characters but the larger ideological issues at play.  Rarely does an action film take such care to show the collateral damage of its action setpieces, and here Tony Stark’s desire to achieve guilt-motivated accountability is conveyed as a completely rational and legitimate argument, even in the face of the film’s obvious bent toward Steve Rogers’s concern that bureaucratic red tape would make them less effective saviors.  These scenes play powerfully, with real investment and emotion grounding the performances of these larger-than-life figures, both in the Tony/Steve relationship and those of the supporting cast.  These aren’t gods among humans; they’re people just trying to do the right thing, and that makes the rift in their friendships all the more troubling.

But don’t go in thinking that the film is entirely dramatic and devoid of action spectacle, because directors Anthony and Joe Russo have assembled (…heh) some of the greatest superhero fight scenes ever put to film.  Early action beats are frantic and effective, pitting heroes against each other in fun and creative ways, but the real kicker is the inevitable big fight where all of the heroes duke it out against one another in a collective brawl.  I won’t spoil the better moments, but prepare to marvel (…heh, again) at just the number of ways that heroes can organically team up, butt heads, get taken down, and re-enter the fray.  It’s simply mind blowing how all this was achieved without making the action too frenetic or indecipherable, and on a small enough scale that civilian casualties aren’t ever a concern, keeping the heroic nature of every character intact.

I could go on about how Tom Holland is the best Spider-man to ever grace the big screen, how the film manages to retain a sense of wit and charm even against the bleakest of backdrops, or how the film’s climax is both striking in its emotional weight and entirely cathartic as the culmination of the central conflict.  However, anything else I have to say would both do injustice to seeing it firsthand and likely verge directly into spoiler territory.  This is, in short, an amazing movie, the kind that effectively translates comic book sensibilities to the big screen without compromise, to the point where I have an incredibly hard time imagining how Marvel could go anywhere but down from here.  I’m blown away, folks.  This movie is just.  That.  Good.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

"The Jungle Book (2016)": Disney Does The Remake Right

In Theaters on April 15, 2016

Disney’s current trend of making live-action remakes of their most successful and enduring animated films has always felt a bit pointless to me, and the quality of those remakes has not changed my mind.  Alice in Wonderland was a bizarre mess, Maleficent was an interesting concept bungled in execution, and Cinderella was so safe that its strange moments didn’t even leave a lasting impression.  So, as you can imagine, I wasn’t exactly pumped for The Jungle Book.  But here’s the thing: it’s pretty good, and actually on par with the original cartoon, believe it or not.

The basic premise hasn’t really changed since Rudyard Kipling’s original short story compilation or the 1967 animated feature of the same name.  Mowgli is a human child raised by wolves who must flee the jungle when the tiger Shere Kahn, fearful of what Mowgli could do to him as a grown man, threatens his life.  So begins a series of vignettes where Mowgli encounters a hypnotic snake, a lazy but loveable bear, and an orangutan king bent of possessing the secret of fire, among others.  And for the film’s first act, I wasn’t terribly impressed, mostly due to Mowgli’s passive role in the narrative at that point and child actor Neel Sethi’s inability to infuse much life into the character.  The kid has physical acting and acrobatic chops, but his line reading is atrocious, likely due to the fact that he is the only human actor on screen at any time.

But eventually, the film started to win me over, primarily due to its fantastic voice cast.  Idris Elba makes a calmly ominous Shere Kahn imposing yet rarely needs to elevate his voice, and Christopher Walken as King Louie is surprisingly unsettling, a vast departure from the animated film that not only mutes the racially problematic aspects of the character but makes for one of the most tense scenes of the film.  I could go on about how the other supporting roles are delivered excellently with their own unique twists, but the real showstealer, though, is Bill Murray as Baloo, who encapsulates the lazy and manipulative side of the character while delivering the best comedic lines of the film.  All of these performances are made perfect by some of the most striking computer generated animation put to film, somehow walking a line between photorealism and anthropomorphic emotion that almost never dips into the uncanny valley.

Where the film falters is in its (likely producer-mandated) need to adhere to the nostalgia template of the original cartoon in certain instances.  Doing more to make Mowgli an active character in early scenes would have made him instantly more relatable, yet the play by play movement through famous setpieces (the confrontation between Shere Kahn and the wolves, Mowgli’s capture by Kaa, etc.) takes precedent over storytelling, at least until Baloo steals the show and Mowgli’s relationship with the bear gives him some definition.  Furthermore, the musical pieces are a mixed bag; where Baloo’s lackadaisical rendition of “The Bare Necessities” feels perfect, the high energy swing of “I Wanna Be Like You” feels tonally discordant coming out of the larger, more threatening King Louie’s stern mouth.

That said, The Jungle Book is immensely entertaining, a testament to director John Favreau’s immortal place in the age of CGI.  The action scenes are memorable and exciting, the voice cast is impeccable, and the more distasteful aspects of the film are minor in light of how much it simply does right.  This is the live action adaptation that should set the template for Disney moving forward.  Let’s hope they get the message.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"Everybody Wants Some!!": Except For Me, I Guess

Now In Theaters
Can someone please explain to me what the big fucking deal about Richard Linklater is?  No, really, I genuinely don’t get it.  I will admit that I am not familiar with his early work, but his previous film Boyhood was a merely interesting cinematic experiment that received overblown claims of perfection for reasons that I cannot fathom.  And now Linklater’s latest, Everybody Wants Some, is receiving similar praise, though I might have an explanation as to why this time.  And it’s not for the right reasons.

To detail the plot of Everybody Wants Some is an exercise in futility, because it unapologetically has none.  Set in the 1980s over the course of a weekend leading up to the first day of college, the film follows the exploits of a baseball team living off-campus in their pursuit of hooking up with girls and getting ready for the school year and sports season.  Ostensibly our protagonist is Jake, a new freshman who is just finding his footing among his new teammates, but he has no character arc to speak of so he merely acts as an audience point-of-view character to a series of disjointed episodes.

In fact, almost none of the film’s large cast deals with any sort of emotional journey, and those who do are subject to the whims of convenience and brevity.  A film this aggressively atypical in its story presentation needs to have strong characters to substitute the traditional narrative, but Everybody Wants Some is content to let each of its characters, none of whom I bothered to learn the name of, embody the same sports-bro headspace while distinguishing them from one another with the most threadbare of archetypal traits, from the stoner to the loudmouth to the too-cool guy to et cetera.

The film’s attempt at providing depth for any of Linklater’s mouthpieces is to have them spout shallow philosophy every once and a while, but none of it carries any sort of narrative significance or revelatory weight as it relates to the speakers.  Not only do these monologues feel bizarre coming from apparently unintellectual characters, they don’t seem to exist for any other purpose than to posit the idea that everyone has the potential to be similarly deep, that everyone has a story to tell, and that everyone can find purpose to their life.  Here’s the problem though: when the narrative and characters themselves feel like hollow vessels to communicate that idea, an emotional connection to the audience is difficult to achieve unless they can relate directly to what’s happening on-screen.

And this is why I think the film is being regarded so highly.  The majority of film critics are thirty- and forty-something white males, men who grew up in the eighties and probably had social circles similar to that portrayed by the baseball team.  Linklater’s lovingly nostalgic lens for the era and self-admitted autobiographical nature of this movie makes this something that men of a certain age will connect with in a certain way, not because the film’s characters or story are worthwhile, but because they can mentally see themselves as one of the boys.  However, for those of us who don’t fit into that mold, the experience is aggressively boring, since these characters aren’t the kinds of people we associated with nor had the desire to.  As far as I’m concerned, one of the biggest reasons to tell a story is to inform a new perspective or to at least create an empathetic bridge to the emotional journey of a character.  Everybody Wants Some is only about making sure its target audience feels good about themselves through shallow self-insert shenanigans that I rarely found amusing.  This one’s for the bros.  And only the bros.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

"Demolition (2016)": Falls Apart at the Seams

Now In Theaters
Jake Gyllenhaal is the kind of actor who only functions well in very particular roles, yet has excelled as an actor based more on good looks than any sort of artistic skill at his craft.  If placed in a role like his lead in Nightcrawler, he can use his off-putting social ineptitude to bring life to a character that other actors would infuse with too much natural charisma.  Demolition, on the other hand, feels like an attempt to inject that same sort of Gyllenhaal awkwardness into a story that isn’t well served by it, at least as presented on-screen.

Davis (Gyllenhaal) and his wife suffer a car accident in which the wife dies, leaving Davis to face his life alone.  Trouble is, he seems to have spent the majority of his marriage merely existing, not feeling happiness or a sense of purpose during his wife’s lifetime.  After a hospital vending machine refuses to give him his desired package of M&Ms, he writes a series of letters to the vending company’s customer service that vent his new feelings and give us brief insight into his bizarre thought processes.  Meanwhile, he begins to dismantle the malfunctioning machines of his life, eventually graduating to full-on demolition of his and others’ property.

There’s a lot going on in this film, and that’s a big part of why it ultimately doesn’t work.  There seem to be about four different premises for a film about a man dealing with grief buried within this story, yet none of them are fully realized.  The self-destruction of all Davis’s material possessions is an excessively literal metaphor, but it’s one that could have worked if it had adequately explored Davis’s psyche.  However, it competes for time with a love affair with the vending company’s customer service representative, bonding with said love interest’s rebellious gay son, and butting heads with his boss, who is also his dead wife’s father.  None of these disparate elements gel to make a coherent picture of grief or a lack thereof, and this is clear in the film’s third act, a slapstick amalgam of cheap twists that pretend closure but feel hollow.  The film didn’t earn its schmaltzy ending, so the supposed emotional gravity of it falls entirely flat.

This could have been mitigated somewhat were the performances any good, and this is where Gyllenhaal begins to feel like the wrong choice.  His disaffected portrayal of a man who has everything material but nothing substantial could potentially work if he were given more opportunities to vocally sell it, but the film focuses on non-verbal cues to show us Davis’s inner turmoil, which just doesn’t work, either as written or through the vessel of Gyllenhaal.  Chris Cooper as Davis’s father-in-law delivers a satisfying performance that energizes his one wispy plot thread, yet Naomi Watts delivers one of the flattest performances of her career, so her romantic scenes with Gyllenhaal feel like two robots awkwardly trying to fuck without having a working knowledge of sex.  All of this is hacked up by some of the most needlessly frenetic editing in recent memory, which serves no purpose beyond faux artistry.

I’m not above admitting that there are moments of comedic levity in Demolition that actually work on a scene-by-scene basis, but they are greatly overshadowed by how the film fails to put them together in a way that communicates a solid character arc or even a compelling narrative.  If the symbolism weren’t so purposeful and the narrative pay-offs so cheap, I would likely have thought the film fell apart in post-production, but as it stands I think we can squarely place blame on the shoulders of first-time screenwriter Bryan Sipe.  Writing a first screenplay is hard enough without having to acclimate to the narrow acting talents of Jake Gyllenhaal; maybe his next attempt will come out better, with a more conventional actor at the helm.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

"Jimmy's Hall": A Familiar Story Told Poorly

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Set in Ireland in 1933, Jimmy’s Hall is centered on a local man, Jimmy Gralton, who builds a community center for his town that encourages the arts and education, but most notably is a place for young people to dance to the latest jazz hits.  This raises the ire of the Catholic Church, which notably wants to keep a firm grasp on the social influences its flock is subjected to.  So they seek to shame the participants of these gatherings and try to force Jimmy to dismantle the community center.  I got about thirty minutes into Jimmy’s Hall before it finally dawned on me.  This movie is basically Footloose.

Ostensibly, the film is based on an actual historical event, as Jimmy Gralton was actually a communist proselytizer whom the Catholic-controlled Irish government eventually had deported for his views.  However, at least the first half of the film is centered entirely on a farcically portrayed conflict between Gralton and the local pastor, Father Sheridan.  Gralton only wants to provide a place for local youth to spend time and receive education in a culture other than their own while having a bit of fun, and Sheridan is opposed to this because… well, I suppose because the church frowns upon such things as pleasure and education.  There is a surprising lack of nuance to the portrayal of both the sympathetic Gralton and the antagonistic Sheridan, and the degree to which the film takes itself so seriously does not help matters.  At least in Footloose there is a certain degree of self-awareness to how ridiculous the premise and proceedings are; here, the dead-serious portrayal of Gralton’s road to exile is hammered into a bizarre bit of formula writing.

This does become alleviated somewhat by the film’s second half, as Gralton’s communist political views become more apparent in speeches and conversations that he has with the denizens of his community center.  This in turn seems to give the government an excuse to try and have him removed from the country, since this was during the height of the Red Scare.  However, this feels like too little too late from the film, particularly with respect to the fact that the real life Jimmy Gralton built the hall for partially political reasons right from the start.  It is almost as if in the screenwriting process the writer realized halfway the amount to which he was plagiarizing an 80’s pop culture film and looked to Wikipedia for his differentiating inspiration.

On a purely technical level, Jimmy’s Hall isn’t really a bad film.  Its characters are relatable and when the plot finally steps beyond its formula hackery it does a pretty decent job of portraying an ugly chapter in Irish history, showing a scared and defiant Jimmy on the run after a violent attack on his dance hall.  But all in all, this film is a bizarre combination of tropes that don’t quite gel with one another.  There are much better films about the oppression of communists and the Catholic-Protestant divide in Ireland, and if you are looking for a movie about dancing kids, at least Footloose doesn’t try to take itself so damn seriously.  Jimmy’s Hall is too much of a mess to recommend.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Concussion (2015)": Oscar Bait Without Bravery

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

It can be interesting to try to figure out why exactly certain Oscar-bait catches on and why other examples fail to grab the Academy’s attention.  Or, rather, “interesting” may be a poor choice of word, since what usually holds a film back from being especially noteworthy in the Academy’s eyes is an entire lack of noteworthiness in its execution.  Many filmmakers and film studios make films with the express purpose of appealing to award season sensibilities, and Concussion is quite clearly one of those films with a recent history true-story scandal premise and an aging actor trying to reclaim his reputation by taking on a dramatic role outside his usual comfort zone.  And Concussion probably could have been a serious contender if it had attempted to say anything more than what is plainly obvious from a quick plot synopsis.

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a Nigerian forensic pathologist working in Pittsburgh who is charged with the task of examining Mike Webster, a former NFL player who had been exhibiting erratic behavior reminiscent of dementia for a long time prior to his death.  Upon performing an autopsy against the wishes of a Pittsburgh populace more concerned with honoring Webster’s career than the mystery of his premature demise, Omalu discovers extensive brain damage that he believes to be the result of repeated traumatic head injuries from Webster’s time in the NFL.  After Omalu publishes his findings, the NFL brings the full force of their establishment down against him, and he must decide whether the threat to his career and his life in America is worth fighting to bring his research to the world.

The film is structured as a tale of an immigrant struggling against an American institution that he has little care for as an outsider, and functionally it does its job.  Smith is surprisingly effective in a softer-spoken role than I would have thought him capable of, channeling his usual larger-than-life bravado into a character that feels weak in comparison to Smith’s action-hero archetypes but still determinedly brave compared to us mere mortals.  Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks offer great supporting turns as professional colleagues of Dr. Omalu, with Baldwin's character in particular coming across as sympathetic, despite his role in the narrative as the white guy Omalu needs to have around in order to be taken seriously.

But good acting is stifled by a script that, while not necessarily bad, could have used a few more drafts to become more than merely functional.  Dialogue is effective at conveying plot points and moments of personal struggle for Omalu, but none of it is memorable except for an obnoxiously repeated mantra of “Tell the truth.”  I think part of the reason why the actors come across so well is because they have to compensate for what little material the screenplay gives them.  It also doesn’t help that, while Concussion does go after the NFL for purposely covering up the effects of the sport on its players’ heath, it tries to mitigate that unpopular sentiment by calling the sport “beautiful” in non-specific ways, as if that is supposed to make it okay that this life-ruining industry continues with a minimum of consequences for those who make the most money from it.

Concussion could have been a cutting exposé of a beloved American pastime if it had had the guts or the talent to get it right.  However, the writing is not ambitious, nor does it take the risk of putting its weight against the NFL in a way that will cause people to sit up and take notice.  The actors do their best to salvage a good film from the mediocrity, and they mostly succeed, but it ultimately isn’t enough to call the film much more than a decent attempt.

Friday, April 1, 2016

"Hardcore Henry": Hell of a Nauseating Ride

In Theaters on April 8, 2016

It’s often a derogatory phrase to say that a film looks like a video game, though this is usually directed at a critic’s distaste for CGI graphics and their inability to emulate reality.  However, I can’t really think of a film that actually looked like a video game; it isn’t as if the Super Mario Brothers movie was shot like the hallway scene from Oldboy, as the titular characters platformed their way through obstacles.  In retrospect, it seems inevitable that a film would attempt this sort of stylistic choice, and the advent of the GoPro makes the first-person shooter the perfect genre to test out the translation of video game action into a cinematic format.  Enter Hardcore Henry, an experimental film that takes its stab at this conceit by placing its audience in the role of the titular character.

You are Henry.  You wake up with no memory and no voice as a woman claiming to be your wife attaches cybernetic limbs to where your original limbs used to be.  As she orients you to your surroundings, a villainous crime lord with psychic powers abducts her so that he may build an army of similar cyborg warriors.  With the help of a constantly respawning sidekick named Jimmy (District 9’s Sharlto Copley), you must fight through waves of Russian thugs to keep yourself alive and save your wife.

Narratively, the film has a lot of fun with its first-person perspective, addressing issues of identity and the nature of the shared theatrical experience by speaking to the audience directly.  The plot is kept video game simple, but to pretty neat effect as the story elements converge in ways to turn what would normally be strange cinematic choices, like Jimmy’s seemingly endless supply of lives, into a comical experience that can only work if one accepts that this film runs on video game logic.  Yet, in no way does it exhibit even the pretense of being a thoughtful meditation on the film medium (as the script’s unfortunate number of Neanderthalic homophobic jabs should indicate), nor does it need to be, as it doesn’t even try to make the first person shots seem continuous, constantly cutting in ways to make the action more intense.

That intensity, though, is both the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness, depending on who you are.  There are some very fun and inventively violent action setpieces in this film, and some of the film’s best shots will remain lodged in my brain from how exhilaratingly fun they were.  After all, that’s what you’re paying admission to see, and this film certainly delivers on that front.  However, there were an equal number of shots that will likely distress those with weaker stomachs: not because of the blood and viscera, but because the camera shakes around just as much as a real person’s would in during a combative confrontation.  This isn’t really an issue during the shooting sections of the film, but early on there are a lot of scenes with hand-to-hand combat and parkour acrobatics that were nauseating to experience in a darkened theater with no point of reference to give the eyes something solid to focus on.

Perhaps it’s best to think of Hardcore Henry as more of an experience than a movie, something akin to a theme park ride.  Despite the motion sickness I felt after walking out of my screening, I can definitely recommend it for those who can take ninety minutes of intense camera movement, and even those on the fence should know that the worst of it is over by the halfway point.  I doubt the experience will translate as well to the small screen, but if your gut’s temperament is anything like mine, it might be worth the wait.  It’s an interesting experiment that is largely successful and a lot of fun, even if you have to deal with some gay jokes and some equally nauseating camerawork every once in a while to get to the good stuff.